The restive House Republican freshman class got an early sign of the depth of institutional knowledge possessed by Rep. Steven LaTourette.
“So, you 87 new folks who’ve gotten here,” the nine-term Ohio Republican recalled addressing the GOP Conference in January, “how many of you know what a limited tariff bill is?”
At issue was a proposal to ban earmarks — federal spending directed at individual projects. LaTourette, a longtime ally of transportation funding, opposed the ban. But he also argued that without defining “earmark,” the new rule would have big implications for tax and tariff bills.
Only one hand went up, in the front row: North Carolina Rep. Sue Myrick, who was elected in 1994. “I felt like I was in the movie ‘My Cousin Vinny.’ ‘This time the freshmen and only the freshmen,’” LaTourette said.
“The point was that here you have this new group of people running around the country saying, ‘Read the bill! Read the bill! Read the bill!’ and we’re about to cast a vote to eliminate things that they didn’t quite yet have a good handle on,” he said.
The push to narrow the definition of “earmark,” which failed, fell in line with LaTourette’s record as one of the more liberal members of the GOP Conference.
The Ohio Republican is considered — along with New Jersey Rep. Frank LoBiondo — the top GOP ally of organized labor in the House. He is one of a few Republicans who continue to vote against free-trade agreements, and he has also strayed from the party line on the environment and other issues.
But LaTourette has carved out a role near the top of the House GOP’s pecking order. He is a close ally of Speaker John Boehner and is popular with colleagues.
Now, with Ohio’s proposed new Congressional map, LaTourette represents the most competitive GOP district in his state, meaning he might need to be even more mindful of how his constituents receive the GOP’s hard line on spending, taxes and other issues.
“Even if you disagree with him, you know that he really believes it,” said freshman Rep. Jim Renacci (R-Ohio), who was assigned LaTourette as a mentor when he came to Washington in January.
“LaTourette kind of doesn’t play the game — you know you’re dealing with the most honest broker in town,” said Sam Geduldig, a lobbyist and former aide to Boehner.
“He speaks with authority,” Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) said. “When he’s giving an analysis, people know he’s smart, he’s thorough, he’s well-informed.”
On the House floor during votes, “people come to him,” said Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), a close friend of LaTourette’s. “People from both sides of the aisle often line up to talk to him because they value his insight.”
LaTourette’s close relationship to Boehner is well-known. “Those two guys respect the hell out of one another,” said a lobbyist close to both. Members and other insiders say the two share similar personalities, especially a penchant for straight talk and sense of calm under pressure.
“Any time there is a very tough vote or a strategic vote, the Speaker will call upon LaTourette in a way that a professional baseball team would call on its pitcher who’s a closer to win the game,” Kucinich said.
The relationship can pay off on LaTourette’s policy priorities, even when he’s at odds with the Speaker.
Boehner has tasked LaTourette, and Ohio GOP Reps. Patrick Tiberi and Steve Stivers, with finding new ways to finance a forthcoming infrastructure spending bill. “To the Speaker’s credit, even though he’s never voted for a highway bill since he’s been in the Congress, he has asked us to try and unlock that Gordian knot,” LaTourette said.
In Conference meetings, LaTourette is known for sharply defending the Speaker, sometimes provoking suspicions that he is “carrying Boehner’s water,” as one lawmaker put it.
“I don’t speak a lot. Because I do know — Tiberi and I have talked about this — there are some who think when we speak we’re doing so at Boehner’s urging. I can tell you I’ve never given a speech because Boehner asked me to, and I think the same is true with Tiberi. But sometimes when it looks like you have a shill in the audience, it turns people further away. So we don’t abuse it, but I do think we have to stand up once in a while,” LaTourette said.
There have been more of those occasions in the current Congress.
“The thing that’s different this time is that you have people disagreeing with the leadership position, which is, that’s their right, but then, sort of going out and attempting to sabotage the leadership initiatives with groups that are anxious to raise money to do that,” LaTourette said.
“We’ve had conferences where the Speaker and the leadership has laid out where they think we can go. Before the conference is over, I’ve actually seen people get up out of their chairs, run out of the room, and [I] have been told they’re on Fox News or tweeting something that is attacking the decision that the leadership has made,” LaTourette said.
He called those incidents “disturbing” but said his ire was not directed at Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee. “I love Jimmy Jordan,” he said. “He’s a true believer. I don’t have a problem with true believers.”
LaTourette backed a recent decision by the GOP Steering Committee not to punish Members who last month helped bring down a stopgap spending bill on the floor.
“The Speaker again has chosen the prudent course and said, ‘Look, we’re not gonna punish them, we’re not gonna make martyrs out of them, but maybe if there’s some major piece of legislation, maybe they’re not the person leading the floor fight on that major piece of legislation,’” LaTourette said.
LaTourette does smoke cigarettes — “I’ve probably stopped smoking 74 times,” he said — but he does not share two other pastimes commonly associated with Boehner: golf and a “glass of merlot,” as the Speaker has put it.
“I haven’t had a drink of alcohol in four years. Because, with the hours that we work, it was something that was taking control of my life but not in a positive way,” he said.
LaTourette’s sense of humor is well-known. In 1995, he invited humor columnist Dave Barry to work in his office for four days. “Some of my older colleagues came up and said, ‘What, are you crazy? What, are you nuts?’” he recalled.
LaTourette also did a sketch on the “Tonight Show with Jay Leno” featuring him and Kucinich doing “trust falls” and other feel-good exercises in a spirit of bipartisanship.
“The best way to get people on your side is to make fun of yourself. A little self-deprecating humor goes a long way,” LaTourette said.